How to Use Bear Spray: A Guide for Hikers and Campers

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on May 2, 2024

Bear encounters can be a frightening experience for any outdoor enthusiast, but such instances are a possibility when you venture into the wilderness. While bear attacks are relatively rare, being prepared with the right knowledge and tools can make all the difference.

There are ways you can help prevent a bear encounter in the first place, but if you do come across an aggressive or curious bear, one of the most effective tools for deterring bear attacks is bear spray. But how do you use bear spray effectively? How can you maximize its potential to protect yourself during an unexpected bear encounter? Let’s discuss how to use bear spray, its effectiveness, and tips for safe usage in the great outdoors.

We hope that once you’re armed with this knowledge, you’ll feel more comfortable and safe hiking and camping in bear country, confident that you know the best way to handle any situations that may arise.

What is Bear Spray?

Bear spray is a non-lethal bear deterrent designed to stop an aggressive bear or an attacking bear. It is an aerosol spray containing highly concentrated capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, similar to those found in pepper spray used by civilians and law enforcement agencies. When deployed, it releases a bear spray cloud of capsaicin formula as a vapor, temporarily incapacitating the bear by irritating its mucous membranes, eyes, mouth, and ears. This gives you time to escape to safety.

Bear Spray History

Bear spray was developed to reduce human injuries caused by bears and the number of bears killed by people in self-defense. The active ingredient, capsaicin, is extracted from hot peppers and causes an immediate burning sensation when sprayed in an animal’s face. Although the effects may sound harsh, bear spray is not lethal and will not cause permanent damage. The discomfort wears off with time.

Effectiveness of Bear Spray

While no bear deterrent is 100% effective, bear spray is still considered the most reliable and effective option available and is far better than carrying nothing at all.

Several studies have shown that bear spray is highly effective in repelling attacks by different species of bears. The U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found that bear spray successfully deterred 92% of brown bear attacks and 90% of black bear attacks. Another study from Brigham Young University found that bear spray was more effective than firearms in deterring bear attacks.

Remember, even when used properly, bear spray is not a guarantee of safety. Always prioritize following best practices for hiking in bear country, including making noise while hiking, securing food, and maintaining a safe distance from all wildlife.

How to Avoid Bear Encounters in the First Place

While a surprise encounter can’t be completely ruled out in bear country, several proactive measures can greatly reduce the likelihood of such encounters and consequently, the need to use bear spray:

  1. Make Noise: Regularly making noise as you hike can alert bears to your presence and give them a chance to move away. This is particularly important when moving through dense vegetation, near running water, or in windy conditions, all of which can mask the sounds and smells of your approach.
  2. Travel in Groups: Bears are less likely to approach larger groups of people. Hiking in groups of four or more can help deter bears.
  3. Keep a Clean Camp: When camping, store your food, trash, and any other scented items securely to avoid attracting bears to your site. Use bear-resistant containers and follow any local regulations for proper food storage.
  4. Stay on Marked Trails: Bears are more likely to avoid heavily-trafficked areas. Staying on established trails can therefore reduce the chances of an encounter.
  5. Avoid Dawn and Dusk: Bears are most active during dawn and dusk. If possible, avoid hiking during these times.
  6. Keep Dogs Leashed: Dogs can provoke defensive behavior in bears. If you bring a dog, keep them on a leash at all times.
  7. Carry Bear Spray: Even if you’re doing everything possible to avoid an encounter, carry bear spray as a last line of defense. Know how to use it and keep it readily accessible, not buried in your backpack.
  8. Respect Wildlife: If you do encounter a bear, maintain a safe distance, do not run, and do not try to take photos or approach the bear.
This is the last thing you want to see coming towards you while you’re hiking.

How to Store Bear Spray

Proper storage of bear spray is essential to ensure its effectiveness and safety. Follow these guidelines for storing your bear spray:

  1. Store your spray in a cool location and out of direct sunlight, either at home or in your vehicle. Bear spray canisters can explode at high temperatures.
  2. Keep your spray in a secure, locking container, especially if you have kids or pets.
  3. Note the shelf life of your bear spray, which varies from product to product. It’s a good policy to renew your spray annually or swap it out for a new one a month or two before the expiry date.
  4. Before taking your bear spray on a hike, check local or park regulations regarding its use. Some national parks prohibit carrying bear spray, while others recommend it. See below for regulations.

How to Carry Bear Spray

Properly carrying your bear spray is crucial for quick and effective deployment in case of an encounter. Follow these guidelines for carrying your bear spray:

  1. Keep your spray readily accessible, ideally in a holster on your belt or chest. In the unlikely event of an encounter, you won’t have time to search for it in your backpack.
  2. Ensure the safety clip is on to avoid accidental discharge.
  3. Take your spray inside your tent with you at night and store it where it can be easily located without using a headlamp. Keep the safety on and ensure it’s well clear of any sharp items.
  4. Do not use your bear spray on your tent, as it may actually attract bears to your campsite due to the pepper scent.
  5. Step-by-Step Instructions on How to Use Bear Spray
  6. Knowing how to use bear spray effectively is crucial in the event of a bear encounter. Follow these step-by-step instructions:
  7. First, remember that using your spray should be a last resort. If you meet a bear, try to back away slowly while speaking calmly and loudly, avoiding eye contact. If the bear doesn’t approach or charge, continue backing away and alert park authorities.
  8. If the bear charges or approaches, remove your bear spray from the holster or belt and release the safety clip.
  9. If possible, position yourself so the bear is downwind to avoid the spray blowing back toward you when discharged.
  10. Hold the spray in front of you with two hands, one on the can and the other on the trigger.
  11. Wait until the bear is within 20-30 feet, aim slightly downward to allow for recoil, and discharge the full contents of the can. Know that each can only has about 6-8 seconds of spray.
  12. Spray in a zigzag pattern to create a cloud of spray between yourself and the bear. If the bear doesn’t stop, aim directly at the bear’s face.
  13. When the bear halts its charge or changes direction, leave the area by backing away slowly.
This is one of the most thorough videos about bear spray and its use. They even provide specific examples and situations and how to best respond with your bear spray. Well worth the watch (10 minutes).

Tips for Using Bear Spray

Bear spray works best when you use it properly, so keep these tips in mind for safe and effective use of bear spray:

  1. Practice using an inert can of bear spray to familiarize yourself with removing it from the holster, removing the safety tab, and firing.
  2. Understand how bear spray is affected by wind by practicing in various wind conditions.
  3. Do not use bear spray like insect repellent, as it does not work as a bear deterrent spray when applied to people or equipment.
  4. Make sure your bear spray is EPA-approved and designed specifically to stop bears. Personal defense products may not have the correct ingredients or delivery system to deter a charging bear.

Bear Spray Regulations and Restrictions

Before taking your bear spray on a hike, always check local or park regulations regarding its use. Some national parks, such as Yosemite National Park, prohibit carrying bear spray, while others, like Yellowstone National Park, recommend it. Know that in order to cross over the Canadian Border (such as near Glacier National Park), the bear spray would need USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) printed on the label in order for it to be allowed into the country.

Bear spray, like other similar products, falls under the regulatory oversight of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This federal agency’s mandate includes ensuring the safety and effectiveness of pesticides, and bear spray is categorized as such because it’s used to deter potentially dangerous animals.

The EPA evaluates and registers bear spray and similar products, ensuring that they do not pose an unreasonable risk to human health, animal health, or the environment when used as directed. This involves rigorous testing and a review of the product’s chemical ingredients, concentration levels, safety measures, and effectiveness.

Adhere to all posted signage about bear activity and trail closures.

Where to Rent and Buy Bear Spray

Bear spray can be purchased at gift shops, outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores inside national parks, as well as in local communities. Always choose an EPA-approved product designed specifically for bears, as this guarantees that it’s effective enough to work. In some locations, such as Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park, bear spray is available for rent.

Recycling Bear Spray

Bear sprays cannot be taken on airplanes and may cause injury if disposed of improperly. Recycle your bear spray at park hotels, stores, visitor centers, backcountry offices, ranger stations, area camping stores, and airports. Proper recycling ensures the safety of others and helps protect the environment.


How long should you spray bear spray?

Each canister only has about 7-9 seconds worth of spray in a can, so you are limited in what you can do. Wait until the bear is 20-30 feet (6-10 meters) away, then aim and discharge the spray until the bear turns away.

Do you run after spraying a bear?

Never run away after discharging bear spray. If the bear stops, turns away, or retreats, use the opportunity to back away slowly without making any sudden movements.

Finals Thoughts

The proper use of bear spray can make a substantial difference when it comes to your safety while hiking or camping in bear country. Understanding how and when to deploy this vital tool can deter an aggressive bear and prevent a dangerous encounter from escalating. It’s crucial to keep bear spray easily accessible, to know how to use it effectively, and to practice beforehand.

However, bear spray is a last line of defense. The best way to stay safe is by making every effort to avoid surprising or attracting bears in the first place. Be aware, respect wildlife, and hike responsibly. Remember, our goal should always be coexistence rather than confrontation.

Happy and safe hiking!

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!


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